As a grad­uate stu­dent, Chris Skip­with studied car­dio­vas­cular dis­ease and was par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in the bio­physics of the pro­teins involved in blood clot­ting. “We were very inter­ested in how clot­ting is related to the devel­op­ment of car­dio­vas­cular dis­ease,” Skip­with said, “but we didn’t have many tools to be able to do in vivo studies.”

So after earning his degree from the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­vania, he decided to invent some new ones. To do so, he signed on as a post-​​doctoral researcher at North­eastern in asso­ciate pro­fessor of phar­ma­ceu­tical sci­ences Heather Clark’s lab.

Clark’s lab in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences develops nanosen­sors for mon­i­toring a wide range of bio­log­ical para­me­ters. For example, they’ve cre­ated tools that allow dia­betic patients to mea­sure blood glu­cose levels non­in­va­sively. More recently, they’ve been devel­oping sen­sors that allow them to take a closer look at the brain by exam­ining neu­ro­trans­mit­ters as they’re secreted from indi­vidual neurons.

This turned out to be a per­fect angle for Skip­with, whose interest in car­dio­vas­cular dis­ease is directly related to the neu­ro­trans­mitter called sero­tonin, which is typ­i­cally asso­ci­ated with mood. This small mol­e­cule is secreted throughout the body—not just in the brain—including by the platelets that con­gre­gate around a site of blood vessel injury.

Many bio­log­ical clues sug­gest that sero­tonin, as well as other small mol­e­cules released from platelets when they are acti­vated during clot­ting, play an inte­gral role in car­dio­vas­cular dis­ease. In addi­tion, Skip­with noted that “studies have shown that people who have suf­fered through major depres­sion are more than four times more likely to have a heart attack.” But to date, researchers have not been able to study those inter­esting results in more detail because they’ve lacked the ability to observe the mol­e­cules in real time and at the exact loca­tion of a blood clot.

They are metab­o­lized so quickly that you can’t actu­ally look at the small mol­e­cules themselves—you have to look at metabo­lites of them,” Skip­with said. This is fraught with prob­lems, he explained, because mul­tiple processes in the body could gen­erate the same metabo­lites and they, too, are short lived.

To over­come this chal­lenge, Skip­with will be devel­oping a new set of nanosen­sors specif­i­cally designed to look at small mol­e­cules at the site of a blood clot. This work is sup­ported by two recently awarded fellowships—one from the Ford Foun­da­tion, and the other from the United Negro Col­lege Fund and Merck Pharmaceuticals.

The ques­tion he hopes to answer is whether indi­vid­uals pre­dis­posed to car­dio­vas­cular dis­ease have higher sero­tonin levels than everyone else. The fel­low­ships will pro­vide the resources to make the nanosen­sors behave just like platelets. The only dif­fer­ence is that once they get there, the platelet’s job is to stop the bleeding, whereas Skipwith’s nanosen­sors aim to detect sero­tonin levels being secreted by the platelets them­selves. The nanosen­sors will have the same shape, flex­i­bility, and sur­face chem­istry as the platelets and will thus be able to incor­po­rate into clots. This will put the nanosen­sors in a prime loca­tion for detecting the amount of sero­tonin being secreted by their neighbors.

Ini­tially, Skip­with will develop the system to work with cells grown out­side of the body. After that he hopes to opti­mize the system to be used inside live animal models—and even­tu­ally humans.

It may be that patients who are prone to car­dio­vas­cular dis­ease need some type of sero­tonin therapy,” Skip­with said, citing selec­tive sero­tonin reup­take inhibitors typ­i­cally used as anti­de­pres­sant drugs as an option cur­rently being dis­cussed among health pro­fes­sionals. “Just having that type of knowl­edge could inform treat­ment for car­dio­vas­cular disease.”

After he com­pletes his fel­low­ships, Skip­with hopes to start his own research pro­gram, using the tools he develops in Clark’s lab to ask those needling ques­tions he was never able to answer before.